The Sacrifice (Kino Lorber)
W hile dying of cancer, Andrei Tarkovsky made The Sacrifice based on a number of past ideas and personal feelings. Journals included among the special features of this release document his ongoing battle with illness, discovery of its terminality, and subsequent efforts to complete the final product. The result is an intense, sometimes impenetrable passage of dreamlike cinematic poetry which utilizes apocalyptic events and religious mysticism to depict the end-of-life struggle. Aging patriarch, Alexander, during his birthday celebration, learns of an impending nuclear attack which will signal World War III. In desperation, he vows to stop the catastrophe, even at the cost of his family. His superstitious and eccentric friend, Otto, convinces him to visit a woman purported to be a witch. If he sleeps with her, she will do anything for him. But what else may be at stake is the unanswered question which accompanies this endeavor. That’s what the mysterious “sacrifice” seemingly refers to.
The film works on a disjointed logic and constantly shifts in tone and visual mode, so attempting to sift out the intentions from the more ruminative, impressionistic set-pieces and images will prove to be difficult even for the most well-versed art house aficionados. There’s a sense that Tarkovsky cannot help but descend deeper and deeper into tangential realms of thought concerning his own transition into death, and each of these requires a change in color or composition, or even his overall filmic approach. With such enigmatic messages and fragmented narrative, The Sacrifice is as frustrating as it is enticingly haunting and beautiful. Luckily, the amalgam of techniques and visuals allows for the film to be enjoyed by simple virtue of its energy and aesthetics, and the chaos eventually takes on a certain rhythm as the chaos of the universe, so immense that it cannot be seen in any given moment, puts off a deceptive sense of normalcy.
Tarkovsky joins with regular Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose wistful landscape photography of the island setting bares a strong resemblance to his work with Bergman on Fårö. A majority of the images are shot in rich black and white with such intense contrast that they almost look like film negatives. Sometimes, though, the black and white images are merely extreme desaturations of colored images, letting a little bit of red or dark blue seep into the bleak sepia tones. For those familiar with Tarkovsky’s older work, like Stalker, this look will be extremely familiar. It seems to especially highlight the grimness of certain textures such as concrete and wood. His sensibility accesses what’s unsettling in the banal. While working in the science fiction genre more than once, his futuristic or fantastical premises are contradictorily executed on a subtle and mundane level, and the alien element comes from mood and not plot. In this sense, an otherworldliness emerges from his unfamiliar view of what we’ve already seen but never pondered.
If I were to latch onto any thematic through line in the film, it would likely be the journey of the author in his own story. In many ways Alexander is a stand-in for Tarkovsky, and his motivations are equally difficult to decipher. Being so isolated on his island and upper-class home, one wonders what motivation he really has to intervene in a world conflict, especially when it may come at such a great personal cost. The most apparent conclusion would be that he is motivated by self preservation. His quest to stop the inevitable, however, requires him to carry out his own destruction. In a way, Tarkovsky portrays him as foolishly bargaining with death, but also soberly accepting it, putting Alexander through a contradictory and nightmarish journey and finally a strange sort of catharsis so that he himself can leave a final artistic work to his satisfaction.
Sometimes a film can be extremely abstract, but not enough to write off as a purely experimental or theoretical work. That’s definitely the case here. Multiple viewings will yield clearer interpretations. Upon first glance, though, The Sacrifice is nothing if not exciting for its beauty and combination of the unreal and the ominous. | Nic Champion
The Sacrifice is being released by Kino Lorber on BluRay with a booklet of essays and excerpts from Andrei Tarkovsky’s journals. Special features include an interview with Tarkovsky’s editor on the film, Michal Leszczylowski, and a documentary of the film’s production.